Now Don’t Sue Me, SmileDirectClub, Because This Only This Ethicist’s Opinion, But…

“Hey! That’s a GREAT Idea! I LOVE it! Sure I’ll accept a refund in exchange for never telling anyone how lousy your product is!”

…no one should trust or do business with a company that engages in this unethical practice. Just an opinion, now.

What SmileDirectClub does, as documented in a New York Times Business Section story, is force customers to sign a non-disclosure (or confidentiality) agreement before they can receive refunds for unsatisfactory products. That way, other customer can’t find out about what the SmileDirectClub  can turn out to be, and in ignorance are more unwitting customers.

Here’s an excerpt from the Times piece: Continue reading

And Here’s Yet Another Unethical Use For Facebook…


Senga Services, a Canadian cable company, recently web-shamed some of its  customers who were behind in their cable fees by listing their names and amount owed on Facebook. Of course, “it wasn’t the worst thing”—the company could have put up wanted posters

Naturally, the company had an excuse: Rationalization 2A, Sicilian Ethics.* “We always got excuses from everybody,” a rep for Senga told the CBC about the decision to publicly humiliate customers. “Promissory notes and everything, and it never arrives. So we found the most effective way is to publicly post the names.”

Effective, maybe. Ethical, never. Employing the threat of using humiliation to extract funds is indistinguishable from extortion. Yes, lawyers do it all the time, and mostly get away with it. It’s still wrong. It is particularly wrong when consumers have reason to believe that they are dealing with a business entity that respects their privacy and understands that their dealings, amicable or not, are not to be shared with the public. This is a dirty tactic, and in the U.S., an illegal one.  Section 551(c) of the Cable Communications Policy Act specifically prohibits cable companies from disclosing “personally identifiable information concerning any subscriber without the prior written or electronic consent of the subscriber concerned.” The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada maintains that Canadian law only “allows organizations to use or disclose people’s personal information only for the purpose for which they gave consent,” meaning that there ” is also an over-arching clause that personal information may only be collected, used and disclosed for purposes that a reasonable person would consider appropriate under the circumstances.” Senga, not knowing ethics from a tree frog, feels that public shaming for amounts as small as a hundred dollars is appropriate. Nonetheless, Senga agreed to pull the shaming posts.

Ban them from cable service, take them to court, work out a payment plan, charge interest…all of that is fair and reasonable. Using private information as a reputation-wrecking weapon, however, isn’t.

I think the debts of every Senga customer who the company treated this way should be cancelled.


*Note of Rationalization List change: Rationalization #2 was always two rationalizations in one. I finally split out the two, with the main rationalization re-named “Ethics Estoppel,” for the theory that Party A’s unethical conduct makes him unworthy of ethical conduct from Party B. The sub-rationalization, “Sicilian Ethics,” is just an excuse for revenge.


Pointer: Alexander Cheezem

Facts: Consumerist

Ethics Quiz: Is “Hidden City” Flying Unethical?

Hidden City

Last month, United and Orbitz filed a lawsuit against a website called Skiplagged, which among other things helps consumers plan trips with cheaper airfare using a tactic called “Hidden City.” Hidden City travel is when a traveler wants to go to a city that costs more to fly to directly than another city that uses the real destination as a connection. Thus, if you want to go to Charlotte, you book a cheaper flight that involves a change of planes in Charlotte, and just take your carry-on luggage and skip the last leg of the trip. Anyone can search and book Hidden City flights, but it is a chore.  Skiplagged makes it relatively easy.

Airlines punish frequent flyer passengers who use the method. They argue that gaming the system this way makes it difficult to track passengers and unfairly takes advantage of the hub-and-spoke system, where airlines fly to hub cities and add connecting flights from there. The lawsuit is trying to shut down Skiplagged,  alleging “unfair competition” that promotes “strictly prohibited” travel. The suit seeks $75,000 in damages, and 22-year-old site creator Aktarer Zaman is fighting it, seeking funds, so far successfully, on GoFundMe, where he originally sought  $20,000 to afford his legal bills and is closing in on twice that amount. My guess? If this gets to a jury, Zaman will win. The Streisand Effect is also in play: the airlines risk making everyone aware of this cost-saving maneuver, while getting bad publicity as well.

Zaman argues that the Hidden City ploy is legal. You know my answer to that ( Rationalization #4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical”)and it’s also the first  Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of 2015:

Is the Hidden City tactic ethical?

Bloomberg refers to Hidden City flying as a “scam” and “cheating.” Is that a fair description? The ticket purchaser has paid for the whole flight, so why is it cheating to get off half-way through it?

I think it’s a close call, but I have to side with the airlines.  The closest analogy that I can come up with is card-counting in blackjack: it’s not cheating, and it’s not illegal, but the casinos have a right to prohibit it in their own interests. The rationalization (Rationalization # 18. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”) is that the existence of a loophole is the airline’s problem to fix, and if they can’t fix it, taking advantage of it is fair. But it isn’t fair, any more than it is fair for travelers to avoid baggage fees by taking large bags through security to the gate, and then passing them off, at no cost, on the way into the plane. It’s dishonest, and the Hidden City trick is also dishonest. You pay the airline to take you to a specific destination. How they get you there is irrelevant: a ticket to Minneapolis is a ticket to Minneapolis, and if you use it to get to Chicago instead because the airline charges more to go there, you engaged in bad faith negotiation.  The ploy is also unethical because if it becomes widespread, airlines will have to raise fares, and all air travelers will suffer.

One of Zaman’s arguments also positions him on my bad side: he points out that his site merely shows the airfares, and that the passengers book the tickets. Right. That was the same argument made by radical pro-life websites that posted the names and addresses of abortion practitioners so fanatics could track them down and kill them. Pro-anoerexia websites don’t starve young women, they just encourage them to starve themselves. If Hidden City flying is cheating, he’s facilitating it.

Reluctantly, I have to agree that it’s unethical.


Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

The Case Of The Extorted Critic: THIS Is A Good Ending?

"You want to give my store a bad review? Huh? You do? Ok, you do that! And Just wait until you see what I am going to do to YOU!!!"

“You want to give my store a bad review? Huh? You do? OK, you DO that! And just wait until you see what I am going to do to YOU!!!”

Washington Post writer Ron Charles sure has some funny ideas about what constitutes a happy ending, which is especially strange, since his is the Post’s fiction editor. (Insert joke about the role of such an editor at the Post here.)

He tells the story of a Brooklyn writer named D. Foy, who was awaiting the publication of his first novel and also  preparing to be married. He contacted a New York tailor shop, with the intention of having a custom suit made for the big day. The men’s shop wouldn’t accommodate his efforts to make an appointment, and in frustration, he left the following complaint on the consumer site, Yelp, quoting the shop’s promotional boasts:

“This is not ’24-7 white glove service.’ This is not ‘unparalleled service,’ nor anything close. Contract this ‘business’ at your own risk, ladies and gentlemen.”

This aroused the torpid tailor, who sent Foy a ominous e-mail: “I was just made aware of your Yelp review. We wanted to answer your questions but felt you were more interested in a fray. When your book comes out on Amazon, I will personally make sure our entire staff reviews in kind.”

Translation: “You dared to criticize our lousy service, and now we’re going to hurt you!”

Continue reading

The NFL’s Replacement Ref Dilemma

There are some things even football fans won’t stand for. I think.

It was Week #3 of the NFL season, and there is a growing consensus that the replacement referees, the consequence of the NFL’s labor dispute with its regular refs, are making, if not a mockery of the game, a mess of it. The ethics issue: at what point is the quality of the NFL’s product so compromised by sub-professional officiating that the league is cheating the public by presenting it at all?

Airlines don’t use replacement pilots when pilots go on strike; they wouldn’t dare. Chicago didn’t hire street mimes to stand in for the striking teachers. In the NFL’s case, it is making the calculation that football fans will put up with lousy officiating if the alternative is no games at all on Sunday. Meanwhile, the NFL still charges the same outrageous prices for its tickets and still collects full value in merchandising and TV revenue. Translation: It is getting full price for a less than complete product. Is that ethical? Continue reading

Mailbag: Why Different Ethical Standards for Food and Theater Critics?

“Dear Mr. Marshall: Don’t you find it odd that in one post you condemn theater critics for coming to review a play uninvited, yet slam a restaurant owner who exposes the identity of a restaurant critic trying to review his establishment surreptitiously? Why are consumers served by secret food reviews, but not by secret show reviews? This is why people hate people like you.” Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Red Medicine Owner Noah Ellis

Red Medicine is a Beverley Hills restaurant; Noah Ellis is the owner. S. Irene Virbila is the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, who, like most U.S. food critics, works at staying anonymous, which she had successfully done for sixteen years. Not being recognized served the needs of diners, who want to know what the food and service is likely to be at an eating establishment when the customer isn’t preparing to write a critique that can make the difference between a restaurant’s long-term success or failure.

Last week, Noah Ellis intentionally destroyed Virbila’s ability to perform this service, or at least made it more difficult. Continue reading

Cocoa Krispies and the Curse of the Transparent Lie

I have always been bothered by public lies that nobody could possibly believe. It is widely believed that such lies are harmless, since nobody could possibly be deceived by them. They are harmful, however, because their use suggests that lying doesn’t matter— it’s trivial, something everybody does, and nobody should expect truthfulness when a lie will serve.  The culture is already far too accepting of transparent lies. Politics is the most prominent example. Because the public expects candidates for high office to lie about their intent, they are amazingly forgiving when campaign lies become apparent. And because we  knowingly vote for well-meaning liars (or so we think), some  really dangerous, corrupt liars not only get elected, but can survive public exposure as liars. After all, say their supporters, enablers and henchmen, it is only a matter of degree.

Transparent lies, therefore, numb us to the hard stuff. They make us cynical, and the make us tolerant of liars. Then there is the possibility that the spokesperson who utters an obvious whopper really does think we’ll believe it. That’s an insult, profoundly disrespectful, and we should resent it.

The Ethics Scoreboard had a  feature called “The David Manning Trivial Liar of the Month” to highlight the public lies nobody could possibly believe. It was named for Sony’s “defense” when it was revealed that the movie critic, “David Manning,”  who they advertised as raving about lousy Sony films like “The Animal” (Starring Rob Schneider as a guy who accidentally has animal DNA grafted…oh, never mind.) was a fake invented by their marketing division. Sony said, in essence, that it was no big deal because everyone knows those critical raves in movie ads are mostly lies anyway. I didn’t carry the feature over to Ethics Alarms, because the kind of transparent, shameless, “I’m going to say this anyway even though it will have America rolling its eyes” lie the feature was designed to condemn didn’t come around every month. Naturally, the minute  Ethics Alarms debuts, here comes the Kellogg people with a classic.

Suddenly, boxes of Kellogg’s breakfast cereals like Cocoa Krispies have a huge yellow label across the front proclaiming “Now Helps Your Child’s IMMUNITY.”   Next to the banner is an announcement that the cereal is soaked with antioxidants, upping the daily vitamin requirement provided by a serving from 10% to 25%.  This has attracted the attention of the FDA , consumer advocates, and nutritionists, who say that the claim that a bowl of Cocoa Krispies that have been sprayed with extra vitamins can improve any child’s immunity to disease is either “dubious” or “ridiculous,” depending on whether you want to be nice about it.  USA Today quoted Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University, as fuming, “The idea that eating Cocoa Krispies will keep a kid from getting swine flu, or from catching a cold, doesn’t make sense. Yes, these nutrients are involved in immunity, but I can’t think of a nutrient that isn’t involved in the immune system.”

The immunity claim isn’t  Kellogg’s obvious lie, however, as hard as that may be to believe. This is, also quoted in the USA Today story:

“It was not created to capitalize on the current H1N1 flu situation,” spokeswoman Susanne Norwitz says. “Kellogg developed this product in response to consumers expressing a need for more positive nutrition.”

Right. It is just a coincidence that in the middle of a swine flu epidemic, with dire predictions of world plague and the Dustin Hoffman movie “Outbreak” playing on every cable system, with parents sending their kids to the doctor as soon as they sneeze, scared silly by news reports of perfectly healthy children catching the H1N1 flu and dropping dead in days, Cocoa Crispies suddenly takes up a third of its box with claims that the cereal boosts immunity.

To be fair, it is obvious that Norwitz was trying to be deceitful, which is usually the antithesis of an obvious lie, since deceit depends on using the truth to deceive. She said the product wasn’t “developed” to exploit the H1N1 scare—no, no, it was “developed” because consumers wanted more nutrition. But nobody asked her why the product was developed. They asked her why Kellogg’s was making the dubious  immunity claim, and her answer that Kellogg’s wasn’t intentionally capitalizing on H1N1 fears, and that assertion, despite her attempt to qualify it, insults our intelligence.

What should she have said? She should have said this: “We know parents are concerned,with the current flu outbreak and all the publicity it is receiving, about their children’s heath and their vulnerability to the virus. Since we had recently increased the antioxidants added to our cereals, it seemed to be responsible to make sure parents knew about it, so we provided the banner. Antioxidents do contribute to immunity against disease. Did we think this would sell more cereal? Sure. We’re in the cereal business.”

But no. She and her employers didn’t have the integrity, honesty, brains, or respect for us to say that. They chose instead to play word games, and ended up with a foolish misrepresentation that even the most gullible couldn’t believe.